By Heather Exner-Pirot, Madeleine Redfern and Jessica Shadian, November 2, 2022
[If] conservation is a priority for Canada, it cannot be achieved through the sacrifice of the few opportunities that exist in the Arctic.
Duane Smith, Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Inuvialuit Regional Corporation giving witness testimony to the Senate Special Committee on the Arctic
Indigenous leaders have a very clear message. Development and cooperation in the Arctic will be on the terms of Indigenous peoples.
Andrea Charron, Director, Centre for Defence and Security, Associate Professor of University of Manitoba
Globally, the Arctic is comprised of everything from industrial cities to remote villages with a growing number of smart, sustainable towns and small cities in between. The Nordic Arctic, for instance, is home to some of the highest standards of living in the world, where one can also find the kinds of artificial intelligence (AI) and data driven innovation start-ups typical to what ones finds in Toronto, Vancouver, or Silicon Valley.
Around the world, 21st century transportation and accompanying energy and telecommunications infrastructure – responsible for how people and goods move from A to B – is in a period of transformative change.
Sustainable and prosperous communities rely on having economies that can support basic necessities, such as health and safety. Today, communities in the Canadian North, much like other remote locations in the world, continue to experience higher costs and poorer outcomes for almost the entire range of goods and services. This has had dramatic effects on traditional well-being indicators from literacy to employment to life expectancy.
Canada has a real opportunity for the North to play a critical role in realizing the future of transportation infrastructure. Contrary to often-made arguments as to why the North is an inopportune place for everything from living to working to starting a business or building a road, that the North is not restricted to 20th century transportation and energy grids can be understood as one of the region’s biggest opportunities.
Three specific technologies gaining support in the Canadian North show promise in making major contributions to enhancing key infrastructure on energy, transportation and communications. These include: (1) fibre-optic networks, which would not only improve connectivity and knowledge transfer, but would make distance learning, telehealth and remote work more functional; (2) small modular reactors, which would reduce community dependence on diesel and provide energy for industrial applications; and (3) airships, which would reduce the cost of freight and allow for sustainable, year-round transportation. This article examines the opportunity in each.
While the Internet has eliminated differences in time and space in northern Canada, its uneven distribution has also exacerbated the gaps, rather than closed them. The COVID-19 pandemic showed the enormous potential of high throughput, low latency Internet connectivity, but it also exposed the much greater challenges that northerners face in harnessing these opportunities, as they are saddled with some of the most expensive internet rates in the world for the slowest speeds on weak and unreliable networks.
Addressing this problem should be a priority for all levels of government. The real challenge is one of cost and political will rather than technical feasibility. However, some advances are being made.
Marine fibre optic networks carry 98 percent of global Internet traffic and provide Internet service at the greatest speed and reliability, linking us to each other and the world’s data centres while providing critical backhaul and redundancy to satellite networks that now operate in an increasingly militarized and contested environment. High throughput, super low latency marine fibre networks in the Arctic would not only enable more northerners access to the modern, life changing advantages of distance learning, telehealth, and remote employment in the information economy, but act as multi-purpose infrastructure offering distinct opportunities for Canada’s marine monitoring and climate research communities.
Furthermore, Arctic marine fibre optic networks can be a catalyst for investment and development in Canada’s marine technology and defence sectors. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sabotage of critical subsea infrastructure, Arctic fibre optic routes – once dismissed as overly expensive and vulnerable to environmental damage from icebergs – increasingly appear as safer options.
CanArctic Inuit Networks, a majority Inuit-owned and led venture, has proposed the SednaLink project – a multiphase subsea fibre-optic network linking Newfoundland, the base for Canada’s Ocean Technology Supercluster, to Inuvik in the western Arctic, which is home of the federal government’s Inuvik satellite station facility. It will travel via Nunavut and the Northwest Passage, with connections to Indigenous communities, mines, and Canadian and allied defence facilities along the way. Branches will be optimized and engineered as SMART cables for marine monitoring and climate research, making a substantial contribution to the marine component of NORAD’s modernization for the digital age.
SednaLink could also present substantial advantages for the federal and Nunavut governments. The project is supported by Inuit land claims organizations, Inuit Development Corporations, Northern Chambers of Commerce, and the business sector and could save the government of Nunavut over $200 million in infrastructure funding if they allowed the Inuit-led private sector to build and manage the segment of the fibre optic cable from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Iqaluit. Programs and policies similar to the government of Nunavut’s Qulliq Energy Independent Power Producers program can ensure rates are affordable to government and consumers.
Investment in Indigenous-owned and managed digital infrastructure projects is a model that benefits Canada and Canadians while allowing Inuit to develop sustainable Arctic communities and thrive in place, rather than always requiring that residents travel or move to be healthy and productive in a modern wage economy.
Small modular reactors
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are nuclear reactors with capacity of less than 300 megawatt (MW). They are designed to be built in factories in modules and then assembled on site, reducing logistical complexity. Their lower power output and smaller reactor core all but eliminate the possibility of serious accidents.
SMRs are considered particularly useful in northern and remote communities that are not connected to the grid, providing baseload, local power. In Canada, SMRs could replace diesel generators that are not only highly polluting but also near the end of their lifespan. Solar panels, wind turbines and other intermittent power sources cannot replace diesel in the North, where reliability can be a matter of life and death.
There are also obvious industrial applications for SMRs, and in fact their planned deployment in the Russian Arctic is for these purposes: the Baimskaya copper project in Russia’s eastern Chukotka region will use power from floating SMR nuclear power plants for its operations beginning in 2027. More are planned in Yakutia as well.
In Canada they could not only be used for mining of precious and critical minerals, but in the oil sands as well. SMRs in that region are a serious part of the plans to meet that industry’s net zero by 2050 goals, as the energy intensive process of separating bitumen from sand, currently derived from natural gas, accounts for their high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity.
Canada is seeking to lead the development of SMR technology, with projects planned in Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick. Once SMRs are more commercially competitive, and a robust regulatory framework is in place, their extension to the North is a no-brainer.
High cost of living, lack of housing, limited infrastructure and food insecurity: these all have something in common. It’s the cost of moving goods to and from remote communities that have no year-round road access and rely on air and sea lift to bring in everything from vehicles to fuel to bananas.
This not only affects communities, but the North’s economic potential as well. In many cases, world-class ore reserves are not able to be extracted because the costs of building a mine and transporting the materials to market are prohibitive. Regulatory approval to build railways, tote roads and other linear infrastructure is very onerous due to impacts on migratory animals such as caribou.
Airships could provide a more economic, environmentally sustainable and accessible option for freight delivery in the North. However, they need a clear regulatory framework that provides a path forward for their use, and the development of an industry – from the airships themselves to the piloting, maintenance and hangars – from the ground up. This goes beyond what any one corporation can do and provides a clear case for government leadership. Because territorial and federal governments already subsidize transportation and freight in the North, there is a strong economic case, alongside the social one, to provide incentives and a policy framework to enable airships as a solution to northern transportation needs.
The business-as-usual attitude for the North, marked with false promises for those living there, has created numerous missed opportunities for Canada as a whole. To turn the page on the past, the Canadian Arctic requires transportation and accompanying energy and telecommunications infrastructure with innovative technologies – ideally led by Indigenous businesses – that will not only help mitigate and adapt to further climate change but also create the means for building sustainable and prosperous Arctic communities. Such innovations will have global relevance and impact.
Canadian policy-makers need to support state of the art and emerging technologies for the Arctic, from their development to policy frameworks and commercial feasibility. There is no call from Northerners to turn their vibrant, unique communities into poor replicas of southern ones, much less replicas of the 20th century. At the same time, access to goods and services matters for societal well-being.
The North has been burdened by expensive infrastructural systems designed for very different geographies and demographics, maladapted to their realities. New technologies and prioritizing Indigenous businesses to build and own their own infrastructure can create a very different paradigm that enables and unleashes the full potential of the North. But it requires vision, investment and acceptance. Engineers can solve the first problem; but not the second. And that’s where the work lies.
Heather Exner-Pirot is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Madeleine Redfern is a Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and co-chair of Arctic360. Jessica Shadian is CEO of Arctic 360 and Distinguished Senior Fellow, Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History.